Chinese President Xi Jinping has succeeded in gaining more power than any Chinese leader has had since that nation suffered the upheavals of the 1970s. His success in doing so is attributable to Barack Obama and Sun Tzu.
To say that eight years of Obama’s — and Hillary Clinton’s — foreign policy has left power vacuums around the world is a rather important cliché. China, under Xi, is one of the two powers most eager to fill them, the other being Putin’s Russia. Putin is more impatient than Xi, seizing the Crimea and a good chunk of Ukraine, venturing into Syria, in partnership with Iran, to ensure the survival of Assad’s terrorist regime.
Xi is more patient, clearly more successful and less eager to show off before the news cameras. He’s satisfied with building China’s enormous military to achieve greater capabilities and to install the ability to speed-lace the South China Sea. As Sun Tzu wrote about 2300 years ago, the greatest general is he who can win the battle without fighting. That’s the strategy behind Xi’s ability to fill the vacuum left by Obama.
Good hiking boots replace eyelets with rounded hooks which laces can be looped around to put the boots on and get going much faster than the wearer could otherwise. By building miniature military bases around a dominant quadrangle in the South China Sea, on territory that’s not China’s but is also claimed by a variety of nations, Xi is putting in the rounded hooks that will soon enable China to lace up and control that sea.
Grab a map and take a look. Scarborough Shoal is less than 200 miles from Manila. The Chinese are planning to build a base there, probably within the next two years. That would put Chinese aircraft in easy range of whatever American forces may return to the Philippines, both at the former Clarke Air Base (or what’s left of it) and the former naval base at Subic Bay.
If you go south from there to the Spratly Islands, you’ll find the second point on the triangle. According to the Pentagon’s recent report on Chinese Military Power, China has built more than 3,200 acres of new space on and near the Spratlys over the past two years. If Chinese aircraft and ships aren’t already stationed there, they soon will be.
From the Spratlys, trace a line up to Woody Island, in the Paracel Islands about 200 miles southeast of Vietnam. Woody Island already sports a large Chinese base at which fighter aircraft are stationed.
Northeast of Woody Island are the Senkakus, close to the Japanese island of Okinawa. China hasn’t built anything there — yet — but is planning to move oil drilling equipment there soon to tap the large undersea oil field. Chinese patrol boats often approach the Senkakus to enforce China’s claim to those otherwise worthless rocks.
If you deface your map by drawing these lines, you have to conclude that the Chinese quadrangle could dominate the South China Sea. But you’d be wrong: these mini-bases, unless they are grown huge and have strategic forces — long-range missiles and aircraft — based on them, they are only the beginning. With enlargement of those bases, and deploying significant assets to them, China could easily dominate the South China Sea and prevent any ships it chose from transiting those waters.
As Business Insider reported, “The oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and fifteen times the amount that transits the Panama Canal.” China, Japan and South Korea are dependent on that oil supply. By controlling that oil flow, China can control those nations.
The Pentagon’s report describes the Chinese military buildup in terms that parallel China’s assertions of territorial rights around the South China Sea. No one knows how large the Chinese military budget is (other than the Chinese government), but China already has the largest navy in Asia, including 300 surface ships that will soon be paralleled by a submarine fleet that includes some 78 ballistic missile subs.
And, of course, China is continuing to build its cyberwar capabilities (which have, for more than a decade, surpassed ours) and its anti-satellite weapons arsenal. It knows that our military relies so heavily on secure communication, navigation and intelligence from our satellites that crippling even a few key satellites will cripple our ability military strategies.
Last week, after another of the commonplace incidents when Chinese (or Russian) aircraft intercept U.S. surveillance flights over international waters, China’s foreign ministry spokesman demanded that the United States immediately cease reconnaissance flights near the Chinese bases built and being built in contested areas of the South China Sea.
It’s always unclear what Obama will do in the face of these threats and demands. He landed in Vietnam yesterday and will proceed to Japan to visit Hiroshima. Obama won’t clarify anything. It’s just a matter of how much more confusion he spreads.
The Philippines — like our other allies — know that neither he nor Clinton can be relied on to defend them. In February, while running for the Philippine presidency, Rodrigo Duterte said, “America would never die for us.” He added, “If America cared, it would have sent its aircraft carriers and missile frigates the moment China started reclaiming land in contested territory, but no such thing happened.” Duterte has been elected, but nothing else has changed.
So what do we do? It’s fun for pundits to castigate Trump when he says that maybe South Korea and Japan should have nuclear weapons to defend themselves. But their point is valid. To allow — or enable — those nations to so arm themselves is another sort of isolationism. For America to abandon them, as Obama has, increases the probability that they will have to obtain nuclear weapons. Trump’s answer would decrease (and probably nullify) America’s influence over when and how such weapons could be used.
America’s nuclear triad — ground-based and submarine-based ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable aircraft — has been neglected and reduced substantially by Obama. His policy, in his nuclear weapons deal with Iran and the preceding nuclear weapons treaty with the Russians — has had the effect of increasing the threats of war rather than reducing them. So have his feckless responses to North Korean nuclear and missile tests. In the Middle East, a nuclear arms race is well under way. Abandoning Japan and South Korea has increased the likelihood that the same sort of arms race will begin soon in Asia.
Had Obama not so reduced our military capabilities, arms, and strategy we could try to form closer alliances with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines to neuter the Chinese threats. That may become possible if we invest the trillion or more that it would take to rebuild our navy and air force to make such alliances attractive to those nations.
Right now, such alliances are more of a risk than those nations are willing to take. It will take at least a decade — and a level of military investment that Trump, Clinton, and Congress are unwilling to make — to make Xi’s strategy unworkable. Making deals with China won’t even slow that strategy.